5/30/15 Protest at Shore targets Sandy repair program Erin McCarthy Philadelphia Inquirer

5/30/15 Protest at Shore targets Sandy repair program, Erin McCarthy Philadelphia Inquirer

Two and a half years ago, Krista Sperber rode out Hurricane Sandy inside her Belmar home. She; her husband, Michael Irwin; and a few neighbors gathered for a hurricane party, and watched as five feet of water surrounded their neighborhood in 15 minutes, she said.

“In hindsight, the storm was the fun part,” she said Thursday as she sat on a red, white, and blue bus surrounded by 20 other members of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

The group was created by Sandy survivors seven months ago to put pressure on state officials to fix the state’s troubled “reconstruction, rehabilitation, elevation, and mitigation” (RREM) program for repairing damaged houses and raising them on pylons.

Amanda Devecka-Rinear, a founding member of the group, helped organize Thursday’s rolling protest, which included stops at vacant houses in Union Beach and Beach Haven West, as well as speeches by affected residents and the signing of cards to be sent to state legislators.

The cards urged lawmakers to vote in favor of Sandy-related bills, such as one proposed by State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) that would increase RREM transparency.

When their bus broke down, the activists piled into cars.

Devecka-Rinear said the rally was meant to counter advertisements and news articles she saw that suggested everyone would be spending the summer at the Jersey Shore.

“Yeah, everyone except 7,000 people” still not back in their damaged homes, she said.

The group’s main complaints are with RREM, which is supposed to provide grants of up to $150,000 to residents for their primary homes. The grants are meant to repair and raise homes so they comply with post-Sandy elevation standards required for flood insurance.

A spokesman for Gov. Christie said via e-mail Thursday that the governor was committed to getting people back into their homes as quickly as possible.

“We knew from the start the rebuilding process would be longer than any of us would want, and it will never be soon enough for any family waiting to get back into a home,” Brian Murray said. “Still, we’ve made significant progress in speeding up our housing programs and moving people through the process.”

Murray said more than 1,000 houses have been completed by the program and the number of people who have signed a grant has increased threefold since last year.

But, according to the state Department of Community Affairs, only a little more than half of the $936 million in awarded RREM grants has been disbursed as of March 31.

Sperber complained that she was asked to sign her RREM grant contract without seeing a bill, and was prohibited from taking the contract home or taking a photo of the piece of paper to verify numbers with contractors and flood insurance.

The only reason the family is making progress with repairs, she said, is because of fund-raising by neighbors in her Monmouth County community.

Next month, when their winter rental ends, Irwin, Sperber, and her children – Jack, 15, and Maisy, 12 – will move for the sixth time in 21/2 years.

Sperber remembers packing up Maisy’s and Jack’s things – Legos, children’s books, toys – as if it were yesterday.

“When we left, they could only take so much of their stuff,” she said. “It was like we were packing up a phase of their life that was over.”

She said she never imagined they would be out of their home this long.

Joe Karcz, 52, of Beach Haven West, said he has moved 12 times since the storm hit. Remarkably, his deck and a shed survived the storm. With music playing from the shed, he hung out there Thursday afternoon in a bright orange shirt reading “Gov. Christie Finish the Job.”

A dirt lot marked where his home used to be. The house was badly damaged in the storm and was demolished last Dec. 23, Karcz’s birthday. He hired his own builder after a long struggle with state-appointed contractors.

In April 2014, Karcz took a mold-covered ball cap to a Christie town hall meeting in Brick and told the governor it was all he had left from the storm. Karcz asked for more rental assistance.

A few streets away, Joe Mangino spoke outside his home. He; his wife, Rebecca; and their two daughters, Sophia, 14, and Giada, 8, had thought they would be home next month, but Mangino said he recently discovered the state-appointed construction manager had been fired.

While their home has been repaired, it needs to be elevated. The family has been living in one room of a friend’s home in Manahawkin. Giada sleeps on the floor, he said.

Mangino, too, has followed Christie. In March, he and Devecka-Rinear tailed the governor to an farm-issues forum for GOP presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa. He was escorted out after interrupting Christie.

In Union Beach, Grace Caputo, 40, stood outside the empty house that she and her daughter, Rosa Indio, 11, would like to call home again. The two now live with Caputo’s parents.

The state first assigned Seneca-SmartJack as her contractor, she said, but it dropped out of the program. Then DSW Homes took over the project, but recent talks with it have yielded no definitive date as to when needed repairs will begin. RREM did not provide updates on where she was in the process, Caputo said.

“I thought I was moving along,” she said. “That was not true.”

Caputo said her home is now worse off than it was before Sandy. Contractors failed to winterize her home, she said, and the pipes burst, causing additional damage.

Group founder Sandy Mackay said she hoped events such as Thursday’s tour draw attention to the struggles still faced by many Jersey Shore residents.

“There’s empty lots. There’s houses that are in limbo,” Mackay said. “Even though the governor wants to ignore us, we won’t be ignored anymore.”

856-779-3237 emccarthy@philly.com

@erinmcpsu